Making Space for the Disabled in Sierra Leone


This December, Sierra Leone’s police force enacted a major change in policy that may have ramifications reaching far beyond the nation’s security sector.

In the 1990s, the nation fought a brutal civil war during which the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group, was known for amputating civilians’ limbs. Decades later, the campaign of terror has resulted in a nation marked by disability, with thousands of civilians left legless or armless. BBC has reported that two-thirds of disabled people are unemployed, and many turn to begging on the streets as their only means of income.

After years of advocacy by non-profit organizations such as the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, which has worked to promote the country’s disabled population, the police department has decided to begin recruiting its first-ever disabled officers. The disabled officers have predominantly been placed at the Police Communications Center in Freetown, the country’s capital, where they are focused on tending to the country’s new telephone system, answering public calls, and undertaking other administrative tasks.

In a population where 2.7% of civilians are disabled, many as a result of terrorist tactics during the war, advocates for amputees hope that the decision to recruit disabled officers will boost the country’s morale.

“We are telling Sierra Leonean society that it doesn’t matter if you are disabled or not. If you have got the qualifications and the ability and the competency, then disability shouldn’t matter,” said Abs Dumbuya, leader of the Dorothy Springer Trust organization who himself contracted polio as a young man in Sierra Leone. Dumbuya was key in persuading police chief Inspector-General Francis Aliou Munu to shift his policies toward employing disabled citizens.

Critical in pushing the nation to begin incorporating disabled civilians into the country’s structure of income and employment was the passage of last year’s Disability Act, which called for the creation of a national commission on disability.

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Sierra Leone’s amputee association chairman Alhaji Jusu Jarka (seattlepi)

The statistics on disability in Sierra Leone reveal why the need for action was so urgent. According to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, 69% percent of disabled civilians have no income, 50% of disabled women and 34% of men have never been to school, and 39% reportedly do not participate in social events. But the statistics alone do not demonstrate how monumental the police department’s policy change was. The decision to recruit disabled officers has a much more nuanced and important national impact on a symbolic level, revealing the country’s evolving attitude toward its own brutal civil war.

In 2008, Yale Professor Elizabeth Wood published a paper in the Annual Review of Political Science entitled “Social Processes of Civil War.” Her paper shifted previously held paradigms regarding civil war and post-conflict politics. It argued that war results in indelible transformations that impact a country so profoundly that peace-building will not be enough to ensure stability—the country must shift its economic and social policy structures to respond to post-war transformations. In reforming its security sector to make room for the country’s disabled, Sierra Leone has responded to Wood’s call for change—whether knowingly or not. It has instituted social reforms that account for the terrible radical transformations its population underwent during the civil war. The nation has found promise of reconciliation in making space for the disabled to thrive.

Emma Goldberg ’16 is in Saybrook College. She writes on post-conflict politics around the world. Contact her at